Seventh Heaven for Seven in Cooperstown

AP Photo/John Minchillo

On a somewhat more crowded stage than usual, on one of those beautiful summer afternoons that make dreary days bearable, baseball’s elite welcomed seven new inductees to their exclusive fraternity.

Welcome to Cooperstown – David Ortiz, Jim Kaat, Tony Oliva, Minnie Minoso, Gil Hodges, Buck O’Neil, and Bud Fowler.

The substantial class of newbies marked only the third time in the past fifty years, and just the 11th time in its 83-year history that as many as seven electees had been inducted.  Notably in 2006, a record 18 candidates were elected, Bruce Sutter plus 17 former players and executives from the Negro Leagues acknowledged by a special committee.

The stage also was occupied by about 50 of the now 75 living members of the Hall of Fame, many of whom had played with or against the “rookies” on their celebrated squad.

With thousands of guests and fans cascading down the vast grassy field sweeping from the stage, the scene is always like a pastoral version of Woodstock, where your baseball cards come to life.

With the threat of a possible thunderstorm headed their way, the ceremony was slightly rushed, not “Hey, I’m double-parked” rushed, but the inductees were asked to keep the acceptance speeches as brief as possible.

David “Big Papi” Ortiz represented the only electee voted in by the BBWAA, the governing body of baseball beat writers who are quite selective in their choices.  Of the now 340 members of the Hall of Fame, only 135 were elected by the BBWAA.  The various Veterans Committees over the years have elected 179 deserving candidates who had the chance to have their careers further scrutinized and the aspect of time to be re-evaluated.  This group includes managers, executives, and umpires.  Additional members are comprised of those honored by Negro Leagues Committees.

Ortiz received 77.9% of the vote by the BBWAA in this past year’s election announced in January, his first year on the ballot and the only player to receive the required 75% of the vote to be elected.  Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, in their tenth and final time on the ballot, came closest to ringing the bell, receiving 66% and 65.2% recognition, respectively, but their fates are now in the hands of future Veteran’s Committees.  And their prospects don’t appear promising, considering their controversial histories regarding PEDs.

Big Papi was the “Big Headliner” and closed the ceremony.  Red Sox Nation was out in full force and danced and cheered to his every move.

“Well!  Cooperstown!,” he bellowed to begin his acceptance speech.  “This is such an incredible day and an incredible honor.  I’m so honored to be on this stage.”

In a navy suit and bright red tie befitting his Red Sox stature, Ortiz was eternally grateful and exuberant as he always exhibits that infectious smile.

“I will always be there for you, Boston.  I love you, Boston.”

Fatherly pride was also on display as it was David’s daughter, Alex Veda Ortiz, who sang the National Anthem to kick off the festivities.

Originally signed by Seattle, the Mariners didn’t know what they possessed and traded the Dominican native to Minnesota, where he got his first taste of the big leagues, and was mentored by the late Hall of Famer, Kirby Puckett.

That’s why Ortiz started wearing No. 34 with the Red Sox after he was DFA’d by the Twins, to honor Puckett.

“He taught me so much about the game.”

It takes a long time to checklist the accomplishments of David Ortiz, who played 20 seasons with Minnesota and Boston.  The Twins and their fans must still be kicking themselves as Ortiz went on to lead the BoSox to three World Series titles within ten seasons.

The larger-than-life charismatic Ortiz retired as one of only four players in baseball history with over 500 home runs and 600 doubles.  The ten-time All-Star led the league in RBIs three times, won the Silver Slugger award seven times, the Edgar Martinez DH Award eight times, was recognized with the ALCS MVP in 2004, the World Series MVP in 2013, and claims 20 regular season walk-off hits, the third most in major league history.

Jim “Kitty” Kaat was the “leadoff hitter” at the podium.

“When your career is validated by players you played against and played with, it’s the highest honor you can get.”

The Michigan native, who recalled going to a Tigers game at Briggs Stadium as a young fan as the impetus for wanting to be a ballplayer (“biggest expanse of green grass I’d ever seen”), ended up pitching for 25 seasons and five teams, mostly with the Senators (which became the Minnesota Twins in 1961), and Phillies, winning 283 games (180 complete!) and a record 16 straight Gold Gloves.  There was a time when 300 wins for a hurler was an automatic entry into Cooperstown, and since Kaat fell just a bit short after appearing in 625 games (17th all-time), his candidacy also kept falling short.

The three-time All-Star was instrumental in leading the Twins to a World Series in 1965 and 17 years later he was a key member of the St. Louis Cardinals bullpen when they won it all.

“I wasn’t obsessed with getting 300 wins,” Kaat has stated.  “I thought if it happened in a natural way of things, that would be fine.  But more important to me was trying to get a World Series ring.”

In retirement, Kaat has become a beloved broadcast analyst on local and national levels, mostly with the Twins, and it would not be surprising if he someday is also honored with the Frick Award.

On Saturday, Jack Graney was posthumously honored with the Ford C. Frick Award, presented each summer recognizing a legend in the field of broadcasting.

Graney might not be a familiar name to most baseball fans, but he was a former player for the original incarnation of a franchise in Cleveland in the first decade of the 20th Century, the Cleveland Naps, appeared in the 1920 World Series, and is remembered for two very unique moments in baseball history.  Graney was the first player to bat against Babe Ruth in the majors in 1914, and he was the first batter to come to the plate with a number on the back of his uniform in 1916.

But that’s not why Graney was honored in Cooperstown.  Beginning in 1932, a decade after he hung up his spikes, Graney was hired to broadcast Cleveland Indians games on radio, and is believed to be the first former major leaguer to do so.  Graney called Indians games for the next 22 years.

Tim Kurkjian was honored with the BBWAA Career Excellence Award.  Kurkjian is a familiar face to many baseball fans, as he has been reporting on baseball on ESPN now for nearly a quarter of a century.   But his early days pounding a typewriter was the main reason he was being feted, first for the Washington Star beginning in 1979, and later for the Dallas Morning News, the Baltimore Sun, and seven years at Sports Illustrated as their senior baseball writer.

And how’s this for a Hall of Fame connection.  Kurkjian is a graduate of Walter Johnson High School in in his native Bethesda, Md.

Dave Winfield spoke on behalf of Bud Fowler – whose real name was John W. Jackson – a pioneering ballplayer from the 19th Century who may have been baseball’s first professional black ballplayer.

Fowler also is now the only Hall of Famer who actually was a resident of Cooperstown as a young child, born and raised in several towns in upstate New York, and is even buried just 30 miles from the mythical birthplace of baseball.

He played in the days when virtually no one wore a glove on the field, catching whatever they could barehanded.  Fowler was a “rambling man,” playing baseball for any team or town willing to pay him.

He faced extreme racism when all he wanted to do was play baseball, and was an early proponent for the formation of a negro league.

“It’s hard to imagine the challenges he faced but the game became the love of his life,” Winfield stated.

Winfield quoted Fowler from 1904 regarding his desire to form such a league, “One of these days, some people are going to earn a barrel of money.”

Today, the plaza leading to Doubleday Field in Cooperstown has been renamed, “Fowler Way.”

Dr. Angela Terry, niece to inductee Buck O’Neil, who passed away in 2006, spoke on his behalf.

“If Uncle John was with us today, he would quickly deflect the limelight away from himself.”

America fell in love with John “Buck” O’Neil as a prominent spokesman featured in “Baseball,” the 1994 series by Emmy Award-winning documentarian Ken Burns.  Buck’s passion for baseball was quickly evident, and the man had charisma oozing from every pore.

If you ever met him, he had you feeling like a lifelong friend within seconds.

O’Neil personified the description of a baseball lifer, a career that began with his first team, the Memphis Red Sox in 1937, but he soon “graduated” to the most successful team in the Negro Leagues, the Kansas City Monarchs, where he played, coached and managed for nearly two decades.

He joined the Chicago Cubs organization in 1955 as a scout, where he shepherded the likes of Ernie Banks, Lou Brock and others.  Buck broke the color barrier for major league coaches with the Cubs in 1962.

You might wonder why it took so long for O’Neil to be recognized by a Veterans committee.  But he was, as the unofficial historian for the Negro Leagues chosen as the spokesman for the 17 Negro Leagues inductees in 2006.  Buck passionately offered up a spiritual acceptance speech, even though his name was not on any plaque.

The Hall of Fame does not have a category for baseball “lifer,” as O’Neil’s lifetime stats do not trumpet a Hall of Fame career.  But that door might now be opened a crack, and perhaps other deserving candidates will be considered down the road.

Gilbert Raymond Hodges should also have been bestowed with Hall of Fame recognition a looooooooong time ago.  Yes, that long.

Hodges ended up appearing on 35 ballots for the Hall of Fame, as he was first considered by the BBWAA, and later by Veterans Committees, and when you look at his accomplishments, you’ll scratch your head and wonder what the heck were they all overlooking.

Hodges played 18 seasons with the Dodgers and Mets (1943-63), was an eight-time All-Star and fielded three Gold Gloves for his stellar defense at first base, but this Greatest Generation Marine also missed three seasons serving in WWII, at the peak of his athletic abilities, so like many who served, there’s no telling how much more should have been recorded to his ledger.

As it is, Hodges retired with 370 home runs, and at the time, that was the third highest total ever by a righthanded hitter.  The Indiana native was the glue of Dodgers teams which went to the World Series seven times, winning twice.  He drove in over 100 runs each year from 1949-55 and finished with 1,274 RBIs.

He would have earned even more Gold Gloves but they only started awarding those golden trophies in 1957, a decade after he became Brooklyn’s regular first-sacker.

Upon retirement, the highly respected Hodges was drafted by the newly reborn Washington Senators to manage their young squad, but in 1968, he returned to the Mets to lead them to a Miracle!

After losing more than just about any other team in the first seven years of their existence, Hodges managed the Mets to a miraculous World Series victory over the Baltimore Orioles in 1969.

Every Met from that era will tell you Hodges was the main reason the team won.

Jerry Koosman: “He commanded respect.  He knew the game inside and out.  He was always three steps ahead of the other manager.”

Ed Kranepool: “I never met a more outstanding gentleman.  He treated us all the same way, with respect.”

Ron Swoboda: “Long-overdue.  He was a great man.”

Art Shamsky: “I’m elated.  Well-deserved.  I’m glad that Joan is still here to enjoy this day.”

So, more reasons why Hodges should have been a Hall of Famer years ago, but no, there is no category yet for a combination player/manager.

Cleon Jones: “So many reasons why Gil Hodges should be in the Hall of Fame.  A great player, a great manager, and what he did for Jackie Robinson speaks to the character of the man.  It was an honor to play for him.”

What Hodges did for Robinson was immeasurable when his Dodgers teammate broke the color barrier.  Breaking it down in simplistic terms, Hodges made it quite clear to anyone that his controversial second baseman was equal in every way to any player in baseball.

Hodges’ daughter, Irene, spoke on his behalf.  The man who had churches openly praying for him when he was enduring an unsuccessful World Series in 1952 passed away while playing golf with his coaches during spring training in 1972 at the age of 47, two days short of his 48th birthday.

Irene Hodges told of the day Jackie was being heckled non-stop by the other team.  An imposing figure at first base, Hodges dropped his glove and went right up to their dugout and declared to the effect of, “If anybody has anything else to say, come out and we’ll settle it right here.”  No one came out.

Hodges likely would have been inducted some 30 years ago had it not been for a flukey stipulation in the by-laws of a long-ago Veterans Committee meeting.  The big first baseman who once hit four home runs in a game (the seventh major leaguer to do so, Aug, 31, 1950, against Boston) was being considered by a Vets Committee in the early ‘90s, and longtime teammate and Hall of Famer Roy Campanella was on that committee.

Campy endorsed Hodges but due to illness was unable to attend the meeting and the by-laws stated that a member had to be present for the vote to be counted.  Hodges missed by one vote.

Orestes “Minnie” Minoso was another baseball lifer who appeared in big league games in five decades and also broke a different sort of color barrier, acknowledged as the first dark-skinned Latin player in major league history in 1949.

“He was our Jackie Robinson” said fellow Cuban native Jose Contreras.

In a 20-year major league career with four clubs – mostly with the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox, Minoso batted .299 with 2113 hits and 1089 RBIs.  He led the AL in triples three times, stolen bases three times, and in hits (184) in 1964.  He also was the first black player for the White Sox when he went there in 1951.

Minoso, who passed away in 2015 at the age of 91, nearly reached the 3,000 hit mark (2,965 total) when combining his work in the majors and other pro leagues, including his time with the New York Cubans from 1946-48.

His widow, Sharon, spoke on his behalf.

“Today is bittersweet without him.  I’d like to believe he his here in spirit, smiling and with his arms held wide.”

Another great Cuban ballplayer was present to give his own acceptance speech, Pedro Oliva, Jr., but you know him as Tony.  When the young Cuban was successful in a tryout in Havana, he lacked proper documentation to get to spring training in Florida, so he “borrowed” his brother Antonio’s birth certificate, and he became, Tony.

That Tony Oliva was the first rookie to win batting titles in each of his first two seasons in the bigs, 1964-65.

Oliva went on to a very successful 15-year career with the Minnesota Twins (1962-76), earning another batting title in 1971, while leading the league in hits five times, runs once and doubles four times.

The lefthanded hitter, who became the 56th Hall of Famer to have played his entire career with one team, was the Rookie of the Year in ’64, tied a rookie record with 374 total bases, a mark that still stands, and was named to the AL All-Star team eight straight seasons before knee injuries forced an early retirement.

The career .304 hitter was quite humble at the podium.

“I can’t believe I’m here.  When I got the call from (Hall of Fame Chairwoman) Jane (Forbes Clark), everyone in the room was crying.  You’ll never know how happy I was.”

We know, Tony, we know.  Everyone was happy in Cooperstown for the seven new inductees.  The rain never came, but tears of joy and cheers of elation flowed like rivers.

Congrats to the seven.

Next year’s ballot contains a handful of qualified new candidates, including Carlos Beltran, John Lackey, Francisco Rodriguez, and Jayson Werth, but none that jump off the page as a sure-thing Hall of Famer.  To qualify, a player must have been on a major league roster for at least ten years, and perhaps surprisingly, only a small percentage of big leaguers even make that cut.

Next year’s ceremony will be held July 23rd.  Be there.  You’ll love it.


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